#589: Arthurian Legends

Dark age doomer shooter a love letter to the classics, but something is missing

june gloom
8 min readJun 9, 2024

Initial release: Oct 4, 2021
Platform: PC
Developer: Scolaro Games

The Build Engine era of shooters remains incredibly influential, a quarter-century later. From Duke Nukem being a brief cultural phenomenon (at least until 3D Realms squandered all that goodwill on Duke Nukem Forever’s interminable development time,) to the “big four” representatives of the engine (Duke Nukem 3D of course, but also Shadow Warrior, Blood and Redneck Rampage) all emphasizing real-world spaces in a way that clearly influenced Valve during the development of Half-Life, to popular Doom mapping tool Doom Builder revolutionizing Doom mapping and making it significantly more accessible by modeling itself off of the Build editor bundled with Duke Nukem 3D and its contemporaries — it was a glorious time for shooter fans, even as Quake and Unreal would upend expectations with their (at the time) impressive fully-3D graphics. But perhaps what was most important about the Build years was the aggressive silliness and irreverence that the games embodied. Duke Nukem is a pastiche of 80s and 90s action heroes, a frequently sexist (depending on who’s writing him, I’m looking at you George Broussard) himbo who likes big guns and strippers and never shuts up. Shadow Warrior tried to send up Asian action cinema the way Duke 3D did for the West, but tended towards racist stereotyping. Blood, arguably the best of the era, went for a gothic horror vibe that mixed extremely dark humor with some genuine scares. The point is, these games were more than just rote Doom clones; their protagonists had personality, the violence tended towards over-the-top bloody hilarity, and pop cultural references were the norm, with some levels occasionally being entire references to popular movies in whatever genre they were attempting to spoof (from The Terminator’s police station assault to the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining.) It is this legacy that most informs Scolaro Games’ 2021 sleeper hit Arthurian Legends, a labor of love built largely by one person to pay tribute to the classics of yesteryear.

Much like how the games of the Build era chose a particular theme to send up, so too does Arthurian Legends, which as its name implies tackles the so-called Matter of Britain, otherwise known as the Arthurian literary cycle — a collection of works and legends, dating back to the medieval period, describing a legendary king of Britain and the various figures in his life and era. Arthur doesn’t actually show up in this — the game is set some years before his time, during the reign of his father Uther Pendragon. After the death of Arthur’s mother Igraine, Uther (who had used magic to seduce Igraine into bearing him a son, ignoring Merlin’s warning about equivalent exchange, a life for a life) declared magic to be of “the Old Religion” and banished it from the British Isles. As the Saxons invaded Albion, so too did a mysterious calamity fall across the land, leading some to suspect that those who had been banished had come back with the Saxons to aid the invasion and exact revenge on Uthur. You, meanwhile, aren’t anybody important to the Arthurian cycle. You’re just some guy, some rando hunter living out in the woods when Saxons burst into your home to try to murder you in the night. Punching them to death, you grab your stuff and get busy chopping Saxons in half. (He doesn’t really have a name, nor does he even speak; LegendsGuy is as good a moniker as any, though I cheekily named him “Flynn” when naming my save file. Hey, the name dates back to the 4th century, it could work.)

Like most shooters from the era it’s trying to imitate, Arthurian Legends is split across three episodes, with between six to nine levels each, including a secret level once per episode. You can’t really select episodes like you can in Doom or its contemporaries; gameplay is continuous, with your gear carrying over from one episode to the next. The episodic distinction here is largely to demarcate different themes, from the darkly forested wilderness suffering a mysterious blight, to an unseasonable magical winter storm covering the land, and finally a sort of Hell on Albion where the rivers turn to blood, the grass dies, and the dead march under the black skies of a seemingly endless night. Each level has its own loose theme, from sacked forts to mouldering catacombs, though after a while they all start to sort of run together, which is only in part due to the level design. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) In a cute nod to Doom, the end-of-level stats screen features a map with severed heads on pikes indicating the areas you’ve cleared.

Arthurian Legends, despite its influences — that is to say, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior and Blood, all of which get explicit references — doesn’t run in either an idTech 1-derived engine nor a Build-derived one. Instead, the one-man development team of Keith Scolaro made the curious choice to develop the game in 001 Game Creator, which results in a few quirks. The first is that the game is more or less tile-based, with slopes and angled walls adhering fairly aggressively to the constraints of a 3x3x3 cube’s vertices. Gameplay elements like gates, doors and the like also all occupy this same 3x3 space, making their behavior fairly predictable. The results are somewhat quasi-Minecraft in overall look and feel, even if you can’t actually grab a shovel and start digging. The second is that the game doesn’t seem to have any differentiation in lighting whatsoever; while light sources like candles cast glowing dynamic light, there’s no lighting otherwise, no moonlight streaming in through windows or anything of the sort. The game remains at a flat light level that goes unchanged throughout the game, resulting in levels that often are just a muddy grey as you wander through dim tunnels that do little to differentiate themselves. While I understand why Scolaro didn’t go with EDuke32 for this — aside from the fact that I’m not entirely sure of what EDuke32’s license allows vis-a-vis commercial games, Mapster32 (for all its enhancements over the original DOS editor) is just kind of a nightmare to work with — but GZDoom has shown repeatedly that it is a fantastic, commercial-quality game engine (see for example Selaco, which just hit Steam’s Early Access and just blows away a lot of expectations of what a Doom-derived engine can do.)

In spite of this, Arthurian Legends does have a strong identity of its own. While its main character doesn’t speak, he certainly is quite expressionate in the Doom-style mugshot in the full-size status bar at the bottom of the screen. More prominent however is the way that most of the art assets — humans, objects, monsters — are digitized from photographic sources, which steps away from the now-timeless pixel graphic aesthetic we expect from games like this to a look that immediately dates itself as being a deliberate 1990s throwback. Area 51, Mortal Kombat, and any number of godawful dungeon crawlers from throughout the decade — it was just the done thing back then, an attempt at realism when graphics tech wasn’t there yet (and arguably still isn’t) and we hadn’t realized that pixel art has a beauty all its own. Arthurian Legends thusly looks like the fever dream vision of Daggerfall by someone who doesn’t play games having the game described to them, but plays more like Rise of the Triad (another shooter with digitized actors!) I guess if I had to make a direct comparison to anything it would be to Witchaven, an early Build engine game (pre-Duke) with a similar aesthetic and a similar sense of being a bit half-baked.

There’s a lot to like about the game. It’s a very charming thing, and surprisingly well put together for what was more or less a one-man show. You get an impressive array of weapons, equipment and one-time use spell runes to stab, behead, blow up, etc. any Saxon son of a bitch who comes your way, from your hunter’s axe which never loses durability to old Roman swords to two-handed bastard swords that you can’t use a shield with to crossbows and so on and so forth. There’s plenty of secrets to be found, some of which are interesting in their own right beyond just being sealed-up little closets with stuff in them. You’ll face a variety of enemies from Saxon warriors, to wizards and assassins, to demonic animals to flying demons to spiders to skeletons. But it’s missing something. The levels are largely flat and uninteresting to look at, with little dynamism (a big part of what made Build so attractive as an engine, as a designer could explosively rearrange the whole level if she so desired.) The music is probably the most annoying part — it’s all stock music, most of it being very short loops of bombastic orchestral/“epic” music (aka the most generic nothing kind of music there is), which is a real shame in a subgenre that’s as famous for its music as its gameplay. Towards the end I just turned the music off entirely; the next time I play I’m putting on some dungeon synth.

I enjoyed my time with Arthurian Legends, especially as it’s had some time to patch out the worst issues. The quicksave system is still awfully slow, but it’s functional at last. There’s a simple joy in being able to just lop off the heads of just about anything you meet — Saxons, spiders, two-headed demon wolves, whatever. But I really hope that Keith Scolaro is able to infuse a little more life into the sequel he’s hinting at, because Arthurian Legends, as fun as it is, just lacks some of the dynamism that a game so thoroughly enamored of the Build Engine classics would be expected to have.

-june❤

Arthurian Legends is available on Steam.

This review has been crossposted, with individual level reviews, to my doomer shooter blog.

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]